If it were up to him, Hassan Whiteside’s free agency would be much like his ascension to NBA stardom – swift and immediate. He publicly announced his desire to ink his new contract as soon as possible, on July 1st.
Other than throwing a wrench in Pat Riley’s team-building machinations, Whiteside’s announcement won’t impact much. There will be a number of suitors for the lanky center, all willing to offer him the max.
Considering that he was little more than a D-league outcast until February of 2015, it’s awesome to see Whiteside garnering max deals. Throughout a tumultuous career that began in 2010, he has earned just over $3.2 million in NBA salary. Assuming he gets max money, he’ll earn that much by his 12th game next year.
The Lakers, Mavericks, and Heat have already expressed interest in the athletic big man. He’s going to get paid. Centers who protect the rim and provide vertical spacing, while also possessing tremendous speed is a valued commodity. But why is it such a foregone conclusion that he deserves a max contract? In their frenzied rush to sign him, teams are doing more than just overlooking red flags – they’re running straight through them.
For starters, he's already 27 years old. Many confuse his inexperience with youth, and believe he will improve over the course of his presumed four year deal. His demeanor compounds this perception – boyish energy that borders on immaturity.
The notion of “experience vs. age” guides one’s thinking on this issue. Some believe his rawness will be fixed by more time in the league. Others view him more as a finished product at 27, and doubt that he’ll smooth out the rougher edges of his game.
These plays (videos via Haralabos Voulgaris) serve as a pretty good microcosm for his defense all season. In his pursuit of gaudy block numbers, he often found himself on the wrong end of some embarrassing gaffes. Many times, it’s the same issue. He is solely focused on the ball, and pursues it with tunnel vision.
New-age analysis has poked holes in Whiteside’s defense, and that thinking has permeated throughout the entire league. Despite leading the NBA in blocks by a country mile and adding nearly 12 rebounds per game, he still finished a distant third in DPOY voting.
Media who sniffed out his stats as empty numbers – and many did – should be lauded. Their instincts were correct. Though he’s perceived as a sterling rim protector, the Heat actually finished with a better defensive rating with him off the court. As for his rebounding? Miami yielded fewer offensive rebounds without Whiteside.
He struggles with brutes in the post, who can bully their way into easy position against him. We saw this in Miami’s first round series, when Al Jefferson often had his way with Whiteside. The hulking center scored 12 straight points in Game 2, all with Whiteside as the primary defender. Here, he barely feigns a contest as Jefferson turns a postup beginning outside the paint into an easy layup.
Whiteside also has a bad habit of avoiding contact once he gets into foul trouble, which plagued him throughout the Charlotte series. Due to Miami's thin bench he was often forced to play regardless of fouls, to the Hornets’ delight.
As Marvin Williams rumbles his way to the hoop, a foul-ridden Whiteside stands still. His hands aren't up for the initial layup, nor the putback. Despite being down by 18 late in the game, his instincts urge him to the side of self-preservation. This wasn't an isolated incident either. Throughout the series, his desire to avoid foul trouble was a near constant. Whenever Hassan was in danger of picking up a critical foul, Charlotte players knew they would have free shots at the rim.
Those vices probably won't fix themselves with time. Age-wise he's already at his prime, and is unlikely to develop mentally. In fact, they might prove even more costly as his athleticism wanes, and he's unable to use raw physical tools to get back into plays after a mental lapse.
It boils down to this – when is Whiteside a plus defender? He's incredible closing out on drivers and contesting layups, but often errs in his hunt for blocks and rebounds. Next to Rudy Gobert, he might be the best at defending guys driving straight to the hoop. But beyond that, there's precious little else where Whiteside can call himself elite.
He certainly isn't on the perimeter. Drag Whiteside away from the basket, and all his defensive impact goes out the window Tommen-style. This was put on display in crunch time against the Warriors, when he was switched onto Steph Curry.
Ironically, the switch was borne out of a remarkable block by Whiteside. His closeout on Draymond Green is the exact sort of play that has coaches drooling over him, while his subsequent switch onto the MVP is what those same coaches are ignoring.
He doesn't react quickly enough amidst the chaos – something the Warriors have capitalized on for years. Whenever an opposing defense is confused, whether it be in transition or following a live-ball deflection, Golden State seems to find the open shooter before clueless defenders can contest. Whiteside is the victim here, electing to give the best shooter of all time five feet of space on his attempt.
It's not wired into his brain to show hard on screens, even if it's Curry snaking his way around the pick. Teams pursuing him will look at plays like these, and will have to decide whether defensive instincts can be taught or not. Normally for a 27 year old, it's unreasonable to bank on "potential." But Whiteside's inexperience at his age is completely unprecedented for a domestic, max-level player.
FiveThirtyEight's ELO projections hammer this home. His plateauing curve shows how rare it is for a player to improve in his age-28 season, but the margin for error is massive. Some projections have him as a five win player in 2020, while others have him as a net minus. Their confidence in his future is a literal shrug emoji, conveying the same uncertainty that many teams view him with.
I actually believe Whiteside is a solid player, and is certainly worthy of a starting role. Offensively, he's similar to DeAndre Jordan, and younger Tyson Chandler. His numbers as a roll man were near the top of the league, second only to DJ.
Vertical spacing is underrated, and alley-oop threats like Whiteside and Jordan force defenses to glue big men to them. Switching a feeble guard onto either spells certain doom, and occasionally spawns a great YouTube video.
Whiteside's offensive game is fairly limited, and mucks up spacing when he plays with another non-shooter. That wasn't a problem in Miami, and likely wouldn't be in Dallas either. For the Lakers however, it would be tricky to negotiate proper rotations for Whiteside and Julius Randle, another player who struggles when he travels beyond arm's reach of the basket.
If he signs with LA – which is becoming a distinct possibility – it would foreshadow a smaller role for Randle. The two would be redundant playing together on offense. Both boost their value on the offensive glass (Whiteside was third in putbacks), and neither has a reliable jumper. As for his passing out of the post? Whiteside had just 29 assists all season, easily finishing last in assist rate amongst starters.
There just seems to be a disconnect between perception and reality when evaluating Whiteside. It's certainly possible that he improves well into his age 30 season, but that would be eschewing conventional aging curves – not fulfilling on his potential. He's never spent an entire season as a starter, and is prone to bouts of immaturity on the court and social media. Whether more experience washes those away or not may ultimately determine his future in the league, and his team's success.